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Lord Roberts of Conwy: Like my noble friend Lady Carnegy of Lour, I find myself in sympathy with much of what was said by the noble Lord, Lord Williamson. In particular, I find myself in sympathy with the approach of the new clause to the whole business of mapping. Subsections (1)(a) and (b) of Clause 1 refer to the need for proper mapping before public access is granted. They contrast with the loose provisions for mapping in the rest of Clause 1. I am particularly concerned with the immediate access provided to all land more than 600 metres above sea level--that is, land above 1,968 feet--whether mapped or not. That will lead to all kinds of difficulties and confusion. The public will naturally think that they have a right to roam such land at will, whether or not there is a right of way to it from the foothills. When they get there,
I happen to know that the Countryside Council for Wales, which will be responsible for mapping in the Principality, is concerned to ensure that access land is properly mapped before access becomes available. I am sure that that is the right line to follow if we are to avoid a chaotic situation. I do not think that we are requiring too much in asking that the Government respect the purpose clause advanced by my noble friend. A great deal of basic work has already been done. Ordnance Survey has recently completed highly detailed Explorer maps of Wales which track registered footpaths, bridleways, field walls and fences. However, I suspect that those maps will require adaptation to meet the terms of the Bill, as well as distribution to interested parties and so forth.
It seems to me that the key point that the Government need to address here is whether it would not be better to complete the work before the Bill becomes law, rather than make sweeping declarations as regards unmapped access land, as has been done in Clause 1. It is clear that the Government are aware of the issue and, as regards open country and registered common land, have provided for mapping in subsections (1)(a) and (b) of Clause 1, but for some peculiar reason they have left out of the mapping requirement other kinds of land. Why on earth are we to have such disparate treatment of different kinds of land? I argue that there should be consistency in the Government's approach and consistency within Clause 1, such as that which has been proposed in my noble friend's new clause.
There can be no doubt about the deep concern felt by many--conservationists and land managers alike--that the Government are pressing ahead with the new access proposals without having seriously considered the management implications for wildlife. Unless these are dealt with and thought through with extreme care, I believe that the proposals could undermine Part III of the Bill.
I need hardly remind the Government of their obligations as regards the environment via the Biodiversity Action Plan and European habitat and birds directives, as well as taking into account the next inundation of a raft of SPAs, SACs and goodness knows what else. However, in the past, whenever doubts arose about the impact of any activity on the environment--not only that of access--the "precautionary principle" would apply. I do not know what has happened to that principle, but nowadays--if I may put it like this--there appears to be an almost sinister disregard for it, perhaps at the expense of political expediency. I do not know whether that is the case, but that is my feeling and I know of others who have expressed the same view.
As I mentioned at Second Reading, the EU has produced a lengthy tome on the whole question of the precautionary principle. I understand that it is now enshrined in European environmental law and therefore we must adhere to it. The document makes an important point by setting out the need to ensure that, when there is a void in our knowledge, appropriate research is carried out. I would suggest to the Minister that the level of research required to ensure that the likely impact on wildlife and wildlife management as a result of increased access is not excessive has not been completed to anything like a satisfactory level.
To the best of my knowledge, four separate pieces of research have been undertaken specifically to look into this question; namely, the impact of access on ground-nesting birds--which is the nub of what we are discussing here. The research which perhaps has been quoted most often is that carried out some time ago by Derek Yaldon in the Peak District National Park. It showed a clear correlation between the inability of golden plover to establish territories and human disturbance. That was, I believe, the most comprehensive piece of work to have been undertaken so far.
I fully acknowledge that these reports are generally thought to be inconclusive, but they appear to contain two common strands: first, that disturbance could very well be a problem; and, secondly, that comprehensive research is necessary before informed decision making can take place. I would suggest that that is essential if the access provisions contained in the Bill are to be introduced in a way that will not compromise nature conservation and management and thus undermine the provisions set out in Part III.
The other day I spoke to Dr David Baines, the head of the upland unit of the Game Conservancy Trust, of which I have the honour to be president. He agreed that the lack of evidence was of real concern. He went on to mention another dimension of the problem, which I think is also important; namely, the strong possibility of an interaction between disturbance and predation on ground-nesting birds. That could have significant repercussions. We already know, as a result of a recent survey conducted jointly by the RSPB and the GCT, that on managed grousemoors where predator control is an essential part of that management, ground-nesting birds fare infinitely better than those on non-managed heather moors. I suggest that that point should never be forgotten.
We also need to consider the sad situation that is now to be found on Dartmoor, where open access has been in place for some time. There is no shadow of a doubt as regards the plight of some ground-nesting birds. Their position is indeed dire. Many are now on the verge of extinction. Perhaps I may offer noble Lords some figures: the number of lapwings has fallen from 54 pairs in 1979 to between 16 and 19 pairs today; the number of curlews has fallen from 23 pairs to between three and four; and golden plover have virtually disappeared.
Those figures are extremely worrying. I remain deeply concerned, not only about the possible implications of access to these birds but about the total lack of action that appears to be happening on Dartmoor to see how these problems can be addressed.
I raise these points not to be difficult or obstructive but because I believe that it is essential that we get clear commitments from the Minister that the access provisions in the Bill will not be allowed to compromise wildlife and its management.
Of course I appreciate that there are provisions in the Bill to allow for closure orders, by-laws and the rest, but how on earth can sensible, worthwhile decisions be made if the proper research has not been
I ask the Minister to give two commitments. First, will he ensure that such research will be conducted before the access provisions in the Bill are implemented? I suspect that the mapping process will take some time and that he will have several years in which to get this research started? Secondly, will he ensure that the precautionary principle prevails until such time as research has been carried out and we can proceed forward confidently with the combination of access and wildlife management?
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